About the Author, Leah LaRocco: “Hi there, I’m a Long Islander who lives in Franklin, Tennessee. My first love was the ocean, but growing up camping and hiking around Vermont also contributed to a deep appreciation for the mountains. Public lands are some of my favorite places to hike and Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a regular weekend getaway. I work full time, but believe dreams and passions can and should be pursued outside of the everyday 9-5. As a naturalist, I hope to convey how incredibly healing the woods, water, and wildlife can be when we make the choice to step outside.” Find her via her Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Website.

Click on Leah’s name above to read more about her adventures!

Day 34: Standing Bear to Groundhog Creek Shelter, 7 miles

October 7. I miss New England. There’s no way around it. My experience up there was mostly sublime and part of me wishes I’d stuck it out and kept going. But, the day after I decided to leave the Long Trail, a buddy went over Mansfield on a clear sunny day and had to turn around on the forehead when it started hailing. He took the bypass trail and said it was like walking up a water slide. Then, the following day, a hiker in the Facebook group posted pictures of snow and ice on the mountain. Ok fine, it was my time to be done there, and I will look forward to next year with so much excitement.

Being home even for a day made it hard to leave. I thought I could lighten my pack, but colder temps are creeping in on the mountains so I have the same gear from up north, plus camp sandals. So the pack feels freaking heavy. Rob drove me the 4 hours to the trailhead and I was off.

My old bones creaked up Snowbird mountain today, as though I’d never hiked a day in my life. It was like my body was done. Just plain done. I don’t know if it was that I’ve been off the trail for 3 days and my muscles lost their momentum, or if it was that I was carrying a 25lb pack that included 2 liters of water, but it took a while for everything to get going. My legs are fatigued, my foot still hurts, and my knee acts up on the downhill, but I swear I’ll use every ounce of time I can to get these miles in as long as this body will carry me.

I called Rob and had a moment, and he said he’d turn around and come get me, and I said, don’t give me that option!!! So I plodded, a step at time, up 2,500 feet on the easiest stretch of trail that actually looked like a trail. There were no boulders to navigate, no need to scrape up my hands as I grabbed at tiny holes in some crazy rock slide, no need to reach out to the trees for support. Today was a cakewalk compared to everything I did up north and it was still a challenge for me.

There are days out here when I’m ecstatic with joy, when my soul feels full and happiness falls with every autumn leaf. Then there are occasional days like this where I want to sit on a log and cry and throw my pack off a mountain and watch it hurtle downward as gear goes flying out the sides of it. (I would never do this, gear is crazy expensive, but it’s the thought that helps) There are days when fingers and toes go numb, but not numb enough, and all they do is hurt from the cold and I wonder if it will be possible for them to ever be warm again. There are days when feet go all white and pruny from marinating in rain and sweat for hours at a time, and I tend to them delicately so the skin doesn’t slough off. There are days when my body aches and my muscles seize up or groan with a burn, and all I can do is remind myself that every step gets me closer to the goal. And on every single one of these days, I never take for granted the fact that I am out in the wild, walking for the sheer love of being in the mountains. I would take a thousand crappy days on trail over sitting at a desk because this happens to be where my heart is at this phase in my life.

I was worried I wouldn’t see as many interesting things with the drought, but the first stream I came to had a resident wood frog who hopped under my feet as I knelt down for water. There were 2 small pools and I scooped water and filtered it through a bandana because of the sediment. Desperate times. I also saw some chicken of the woods mushrooms, a huge praying mantis, and a tiny salamander in a hole in a log by another water source.

When I reached the top of Snowbird Mountain there was an older man and woman at a campsite with their son. I stopped and was admiring the view and the man asked where I was from and told me he camped in that spot when he was 17 and came up here all the time. They live 8 miles away. His wife said today was her first time there and she thought it was just beautiful. She was carrying a glass that had a drink with ice cubes in it. They’d parked near the tower. The man told me we could see Virginia from that spot, but I don’t think we could. He also said he was Earl Scruggs’s cousin, and the lady piped up that Steve Martin is their neighbor. I waved goodbye and headed on.

When I was dropped off earlier, I met two hikers named Gamel and Peg who are also sectioning and headed north. We leapfrogged all day and ended up at the same shelter. Gamel has section hiked and thru hiked the entire AT. Badass. The shelter is full tonight and I’m squeezed in with strangers who are all hoping to keep our gear dry at least until tomorrow when everything will be wet.

Most of us started this section today and all of us complained about it. The scarcity of water has everyone on edge. We’re all carrying more than we normally would, and it’s so heavy. I think tomorrow I’m just sticking with my usual liter and am planning to refill at the 3 mile mark where a stream was reported just yesterday. This is when Guthook really comes in handy.

I’m mentally preparing myself for the incoming rain and for wet feet again. I just don’t want there to be lightning tomorrow. I head over Max Patch, a gorgeous section with awesome views on clear days, but it’s very exposed, so I need to get a move on in the morning.

Day 35: Groundhog Creek Shelter to Walnut Mountain Shelter, 14.3 miles

October 8. Well last night was interesting. Shooky, another hiker at the shelter, ended up getting very sick around 9 pm. Apparently I was dead to the world and never heard any of this happen. At dinner he was saying he had to force himself to eat, then around 9, he was asking if anyone had electrolytes or medicine, then he started throwing up. I guess he called someone who told him to call 911, so he did. Around 11 pm we had two firemen show up with a huge flashlight, announcing themselves and waking us up to ask where he was. Aside from the fact that they were very good looking in the hazy glow of their flashlight, we had no information for them. Seriously, I am still confused about how I missed this whole incident.

At 3:25 am, I got up for a pee run (see previous post about this traumatic nightly endeavor), and managed to sleep until about 6:45. The mornings here seem so much darker than up north, but the evening light does last a bit longer.

I was quick to head out this morning because I wanted to make it over Max Patch before weather hit. Max Patch is a spectacular bald with 360 degree views that steal your heart in an instant. I day hiked this spot a couple of years ago with a friend, and it meant so much to be crossing over it as an AT hiker. Monarch butterflies are in full migration here as they were in New England. There were so many of them alighting on goldenrod and purple asters, floating along in the breeze across the grasses atop the bald. I’m still assured that I’m headed north as they continue their journey south.

The clouds were hanging ominously over the hills even though the sun was shining brightly. Woolly bear caterpillars squirmed their way quickly across the trail and I kept picking them up because I love they way they feel, like an antique wool teddy bear. A little boy and his family were walking along the trail and I asked him if he’d ever held one. He said no, so I put the caterpillar in his hand and watched his face light up. All of the woolly bears had lots of brown on them.

I didn’t want to leave this spot. It gave me the urge to spin around like Maria Von Trapp and sing about the hills, which I resisted because there were other people nearby, darn it. I took my time, enjoying this moment I didn’t think I was going to have because of the weather forecast, which thankfully has been constantly shifting. There are fragments of time on this trail that must be stored in the well of joy for days when there are no views, or the weather is bad. A tired heart can dip a cup into the well and let it sustain through the miles that are less than ideal.

Max Patch reminds me of the Scottish highlands a bit, except here, the forests of the Smokies can be seen, green and lush and beckoning. I soon saw Peg and Gamel coming down the trail behind me. We chatted and I followed them into the woods. I am so in awe of them doing this. There are seriously no age limits on hiking, which is encouraging to me, and a major incentive to keep myself in shape so I can do this for years to come. They’re faster than me so I followed behind at a distance, taking my time and enjoying the rhododendron tunnels we walked through.

The trail came to a couple of junctions and we continued on without paying much attention. Suddenly we came upon another hiker who said we weren’t on the AT. Splash had hiked on this trail for almost an hour before she came to a road and a lady there told her she was way off. I pulled up Guthook and sure enough we were a half mile off, so we turned around and backtracked trying to figure out how we’d missed the turn. When we finally saw it, we realized. Unless you are looking directly to the left, the trail is easy to miss. Once we were back on track though, it was smooth sailing from there. Water was more plentiful along this stretch and I stopped a lot at the streams to bask in the cool air coming off the water. It was also fun to find little salamanders hiding among the mud and rocks. These little joys go so easily unnoticed unless they are intentionally observed. Nature has many gifts to give to those who have eyes to see.

As I climbed out of Lemon Gap to the next water source, the sky darkened considerably and I knew my time of dry feet would shortly come to an end. Sure enough as soon as I filled up with water for the last half mile to the shelter, it started to pour. I put my rain gear on and trudged up the rest of the mountain until coming to the Walnut Mountain shelter which sits right on the trail. Thank goodness for this dry place tonight. I didn’t want to set up a tent because I was tired and also because I didn’t want to haul a wet tent tomorrow.

This entire area is shrouded in a cloud. The rain let up enough for us to cook dinner on the picnic table before being forced inside the shelter. The raindrops are pinging noisily off the tin roof, creating a pleasant din to fall asleep to. I think about how much I take the four walls of my home for granted. How often during the day do I consciously stand in gratefulness for safety from the elements? Here I am in a three sided, partially leaking structure, more thankful than ever for a place to sleep out of the rain. I also had a lovely view from the privy tonight since it doesn’t have a door!

The rain is supposed to continue all night and all day tomorrow with thundershowers in the afternoon. I have 13 miles to go into Hot Springs where I’ll stay at a hostel and resupply before setting off again for who knows where. People keep asking me how far I’m going, but I haven’t figured that out yet. Erwin, TN is 70 miles from Hot Springs, and I’ll have to see how far I can make it beyond that. Right now my pace is slow because my knee and my foot both hurt. There is just no speeding along like I typically would on some of these stretches. I worry about the damage I could be doing to my foot. Hopefully it won’t get any worse.

Day 35: Groundhog Creek Shelter to Walnut Mountain Shelter, 14.3 miles

October 9. Today, a friend summited Mt. Katahdin and finished his thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. Down south, I cried my way downhill into Hot Springs, NC on the same trail and finished my section hike.

Three of the guys I met in Georgia, and had the awesome privilege to hike with, finished their Appalachian Trail journeys recently and I can’t even explain how happy I am for them. We only knew each other for a moment, but their joy is mine too. So few will truly understand what they’ve accomplished. Congratulations, Big Red, Dirty Dan, and Captain Sweatpants!!!

I woke up to the most gorgeous scene. The mountain was in a cloud and the forest looked like a spooky dream. I was the first one to pack up, eat breakfast, and leave the shelter. After a 1,000 foot climb up Bluff Mountain, the rest of the way into town would be downhill.

As I walked, the smell of wet earth filled my senses. I inhaled humid air into my lungs, having to work a little harder for breath. All the leaves shone a brighter green in the dappled light, and I ducked at the sound of droplets cascading through the canopy every time a breeze rustled the branches above. The peace of a misty wood is matched only by the quiet of a snow laden wood.

I was able to move quickly this morning. The trail felt spongier underfoot after a good soaking, but the drought-parched streams were still mostly dry. The earth had not drunk her fill yet. More rain would be coming soon.

Heading down from Bluff Mountain, the trail was never steep, but the relentless downward angle began to aggravate my knee. Through three states I’ve been able to manage this pain, to grit my teeth through it, medicate it away, and ignore the ache that always returned from an injury that occurred a month before I started. Today, after miles of going down down down, I began to have shooting pain going up my leg into my hip and then down again along the side of my knee. I stopped often, moaned and groaned with the toughest of steps, and finally just let myself cry. Yeah, it hurt, but I also knew this was finally it. I had truly reached my body’s limit to handle this anymore.

Off to my right I could see I had descended below the clouds and the wall of trees on the neighboring mountains were bidding me farewell until next time. I drank them in. Don’t forget this moment. Remember how they look.

The last mile into town took every ounce of limping strength I had left. I dropped my pack on the porch of the Appalachian Trail-er bunkhouse just as the door opened up and Haley’s smiling face appeared. I told her how I was feeling and went in for a hug. The Trail-er is owned and run by Jennifer Pharr Davis’s Blue Ridge Hiking Company. Jen is a record setting hiker, entrepreneur, businesswoman, and inspiring public speaker. She’s also a sweet friend who I’m so thankful for because her encouragement on this section hike has meant the world to me. Reading about her journeys along the Appalachian Trail watered the seeds of my own dream. Haley, who manages the Trail-er, is a triple crowner with a wildly adventurous heart and a wicked sense of humor. She’s hiked the AT, PCT, and CDT, an absolutely mind blowing accomplishment, and has loads of incredible stories about her time in the outdoors. Between the two of them are tens of thousands of trail miles.

To end this hike in the company of friends who understand the trail, who understand injuries, who are so encouraging, and who empower women to get into the wilderness on a daily basis, was fitting. I am leaving the mountains with a full heart, knowing I took this hike as far as I possibly could. Now it’s time to heal and rest, continue writing and editing, and plan the next adventure.

I have so much more to say about this time in the wilderness. There were many things lodged deep in my heart that were finally allowed to reach the surface in the absence of the noise of everyday life. My greatest fear is losing the part of myself that was revealed on the trail. Now that I’ve felt the freedom of sleeping under the stars, breathing fresh air, and drinking from mountain streams for so long, I’m not quite sure how to go back indoors. My life was changed by this experience, has been changing for the past several years every time I’ve stepped foot on a trail.

I did this alone. I spent over a month of my life as a solo traveler, living out of a backpack, walking across state lines on mountain ridges. Such happiness and fulfillment was found in this endeavor, even though this is one of the toughest physical challenges I’ve yet to face. This hike was not defined by fear or loneliness, but rather by peaceful tranquility held in the arms of Mother Nature and kindness seen in the smiles of fellow travelers.

My identity on the trail is Eagle Eye. To go back home and simply be Leah makes me feel like part of myself will be missing. But this part of me will always exist. She will be found every time I breathe the air of a fall morning. She will rise up in moments of hardship when I remember what I overcame in the mountains. She will be fully herself again when I step into the woods and set off on a trail. And she will be stronger when these temporary wounds have healed.

“Only in the woods was all at rest for me. My soul became still and full of power.” Knut Hamsun